Every year there are debates about the meaning of the NFL Scouting Combine.
Some people argue it is meaningless. Others change their views on players dramatically based on the results. Many look to find a middle ground. Seldom are our assumptions tested, however. We hear talk about how a certain drill is important at a given position, but we aren’t given much evidence to back it up.
Football performance isn’t easy to quantify. Compare it with a sport like baseball. Football is literally decades behind in developing statistical metrics to accurately reflect a player’s value. Beyond that, the mechanics of how baseball is played make it much easier to isolate what each player is responsible for than football where every play has twenty-two players moving around the field.
Imperfect though our attempts might be, some have made an attempt to figure out which Combine numbers really matter at each position.
A study was published in 2020 that examined the Combine numbers at each offensive position that correlated with careers lasting at least five years. A few years before that, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective took at look at the numbers that correlated with Approximate Value (AV). Pro Football Focus has done the same with its Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric.
These are clearly imperfect metrics, but they likely tell us more than anecdotal evidence. To me these seemed like a good place to start.
With this in mind, I decided to examine the Combine results at each position these studies suggest is significant. Using multiple imperfect measures will at least help us eliminate some of the biases and weaknesses each individual one has.
For our purposes a number had to correlate with success at a given position in at least two of the three studies.
As always, I’m going to ask you to remember that percentages exist other than 0 percent and 100 percent. A player who stands out in significant drills at his position is not a guarantee to be a great player. That said, if an inordinate number of successful players at a given position over the course several years have a certain trait, this might offer us a hint about the most likely prospects to succeed.
With that I will get started.
The only number that showed significance at the most important position on the field is height, which appeared as both an indicator of a long career and a higher AV.
This might not be the ideal way to begin an article like this, but I don’t find it completely convincing. For a long time NFL teams have favored tall quarterbacks because they are tall. Tall quarterbacks get drafted higher. Getting drafted higher means you usually get more chances and stay in the league longer. That explains the five year career aspect, and for quarterbacks AV places an outsized emphasis on playing time. This whole thing seems like a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Quarterbacks who are tall last longer because teams keep tall quarterbacks longer.
For what it is worth, Cole Kelley of Southeast Louisiana University was the tallest quarterback at the Combine at 6’7”. Following him were Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati, Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh, Jack Coan of Notre Dame, and Carson Strong of Nevada all at 6’3”.
Probably more notable is how little of a correlation there seems to be between much at the Combine and quarterback success.
The running back position, on the other hand, has plenty of drills that seem to have some sort of correlation to success in the NFL. The 40 yard dash, the 3 cone, and the broad jump all appeared in at least two of the studies as indicators of running back success. So did the 10 yard split on the 40 yard dash.
Of course none of the running backs participated in the three cone at the Combine, leaving us with three relevant measurements.
Standouts include Breece Hall of Iowa State,Pierre Strong of South Dakota State, Zamir White of Georgia, and Tyler Goodson of Iowa. Using MockDraftable’s database to put the performances into a context, these players finished above the 80th percentile historically for running backs in all three drills at the position. Kenneth Walker II of Michigan State and James Cook of Georgia narrowly missed this club.
Honorable mentions to go Pierre Strong of South Dakota State and Tyler Goodson of Iowa. All of them made the 80th percentile in three of the drills and came just short in a fourth.
Wide receiver is perhaps the most watched position at the Combine. Why wouldn’t it be? On paper it seems like a position where physical talent really matters. Who doesn’t want a receiver who speeds away from cornerbacks, or a big target who can win jump balls?
So you might be surprised to learn how little correlation there is between specific Combine numbers and success at the position. Only 10 yard splits were found to have any significance across more than one of these studies.
On some level this does make a bit of sense. Our own superhuman did a great job of explaining it in his scouting profile of Cincinnati wide receiver Alec Pierce the other day.
The thing many NFL GM’s don’t understand is that the wide receiver position is probably the most unique position in football because there are so many different types of receivers. You have the rail thin speedster, the little slot guy who is quick as a cat. You have a mid sized receiver who lacks elite speed but is smart and get open. There are like 10 other different types of receivers who could possibly succeed in the NFL.
Since there are so many different way to succeed at the position and each test tells us something different, the odds are against any one test definitively telling us whether a receiver can succeed on the next level.
I would caution against reading too much into any position where there is only one test of significance. With that said, the top prospect times in the 10 yard split at wide receiver were registered by Skyy Moore of Western Michigan, Christian Watson of North Dakota State, Garrett Wilson of Ohio State, Khalil Shakir of Boise State, Chris Olave of Ohio State, Bo Melton of Rutgers, Calvin Austin III of Memphis, and Velus Jones Jr. of Tennessee.
At tight end there were three drills that appeared significant in at least two of the studies. They are the vertical, the broad jump, and the 3 cone.
This wasn’t a stellar year at the position, but the biggest winner was Daniel Bellinger of San Diego State. Bellinger posted the top broad jump of the class at 125 inches, which puts him in the 94th percentile historically at the position. His 7.05 3 cone put him in fourth in the class and the 74th percentile at tight end, while his 34.5 inch vertical was tied for third best in the class has him in the 67th percentile.
Nobody else who participated in all three drills came close to his performance, although it is worth noting the two players who had better verticals, Isaiah Likely of Coastal Carolina and Chigoziem Okonkwo of Maryland didn’t test in either the 3 cone or the broad jump.
The studies differentiated between offensive linemen differently. Some listed offensive line as a generic group, while others specified positions. I did my best to figure out the overlaps.
For tackles there were no test that appeared in more than one study.
For interior linemen, the broad jump was significant.
Again I caution against reading too much into a position group with only one significant test, but in case you were interested, the top broad jumps among interior line prospects were turned in by Cole Strange of Tennessee Chattanooga, Zach Tom of Wake Forest, Luke Wattenberg of Washington, Dohnovan West of Arizona State, Zion Johnson of Boston College, and Logan Bruss of Wisconsin.
So there you have it.
For the offensive side of the ball, my main takeaway is that the Combine seems to have more significance at running back and tight end than other positions since both feature multiple drills with correlations to measures of career success.
Of course the Combine only tells us so much so I’d hold off on ordering a gold jacket for any of the winners mentioned above.